Teaching Badly: Work

My best conversations about teaching are always with the same teacher at my school.  He’s the most insightful classroom teacher I know.  The other day we had a great talk about the lynch pin of learning: work.

The haves and the have-nots in my Form III (9th grade) class are neatly divided by a simple difference: those who do their work to get it done and those who do their work as a way to learn something (set aside the self-destructive ones who don’t do any work at all).  Getting a student to invest actively in the work–to really do it–is the whole game.  It’s the difference between life and death, blessing and curse.

There is no way to teach this to a student.  That’s where I’m at these days as a teacher, grim as that sounds.  Well, “no way” is perhaps hyperbolic.  I just mean that it’s not something within the teacher’s control.

There’s a treacly edu-koan that goes, with many variants, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  In my view both images of education are hogwash because they both place the emphasis on the agency of the teacher.

When it comes to getting a student to work, what can a teacher do?  Well, the list is fairly short and fairly simple: give them work to do, model doing it well, push-pull-exhort them on the whys and wherefores.  Most importantly, give them results. Not graded feedback–that stuff is garbage–but spoils of victory, accomplishment, new things understood, and the thrill of success.  All of which is to say, whatever work you give them must have a meaningful goal and not be a time-killer.

Will such masterfully-designed material make anyone work?  Don’t be silly.  But some kids, by constitution or early development or dumb freaking luck, will do it and they will find the happiness of learning.  Those kids are your best advertising, especially the surprises who emerge from the cave for the first time.

Uninvested students have, by Form III, stopped paying attention to what the “smart kids” do because they are “smart kids” and who could ever be a “smart kid.”  But when one of their “dumb” friends breaks the chains and leaves the cave for the first time and comes back radiant with “Hey!”–that’s a motivator.

But can you control what kind of soil your seeds of teaching will fall upon?  No.  Not as you’d want to.  My friend retorted that he didn’t like the idea of giving up, of not being able to get the kids to do it.  I won that argument by saying, “Well, you raised a boy to adulthood.  What did you do to make him work?”  By laughter did we agree that I had won the point.

So return to my previous joke-post about Morpheus and explaining things to kids.  Here’s a progression to getting better at teaching:

  • Learn how to explain something perfectly.
  • Realize how little that matters.
  • Learn 10 different ways to explain the same thing.
  • Learn how to recognize what the student’s obstacle or hold-up is.
  • Learn to match the right explanation to the right obstacle.
  • Realize how little any of that matters.
  • *Get them to teach themselves by really working.*

And if anyone could “make” that last step happen, they would be the greatest teacher ever.  Ho ho ho.  It is to laugh.

So it turns out, at least for my current thinking on the matter, that the teacher’s agency is fairly limited.  Takes two to tango and all that.  You show them what’s out there and give them tools to go after it, to reach it.  When they settle for second-best you use one of your fancy questions or explanations to goad them into resuming the chase.  You don’t worry as much about racing them to the perfect answer and you always show them connections back to earlier material, ahead to future questions, or out to interesting detours.

But mostly you just goad, annoy, badger, and watch them learn.  So it turns out we don’t need treacly edu-koans because Plato already nailed the one that matters.  Gadfly those kids until they get out of the damn cave, already!


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